As its title may suggest, Of Horses and Men is steadfast in its attempt to put humans and beasts on a level field, amid the ironically rugged topography of Iceland’s bleakly serene countryside. The opening titles are paired with near-abstract, extreme close-ups of horse fur, which are later echoed by the similar scanning of a woman’s hair. A third-act bout of wilderness sex between a man and a woman is in direct correspondence with an early, indelible shocker, wherein a black stallion mounts a white mare belonging to local hotshot Kolbeinn (Ingvar E. Sigurðsson)...while Kolbeinn is astride her. (To boot, both acts are viewed through binoculars by members of the film’s tight-knit rural community.) Visually bolstered by such striking tableaux as horses and people corralled in the same pen, the theme of animalistic commonality—or, perhaps, equine equalization—is fascinating in the sense of a NatGeo special turned on its head, but it’s not what spurs the movie to hit its stride.
Instead, Of Horses and Men is propelled by our collective inability to tame nature, and the gallows humor that arises when characters feebly attempt to do so. Before Kolbeinn’s humiliatingly public, vicarious “raping,” he’s shown riding his mare with a practically campy hubris, made all the more pronounced by his horse’s unique strut. “What a beautiful gait!” remarks a binocular-wielding onlooker. But what’s ideal to an Icelander is alien to a non-native, as these are Iceland-specific, miniature horses, which need to lift their front legs considerably in order to achieve a gallop, resulting in what looks like a comically uncomfortable ride for a man so beaming with self-satisfaction. At the home of Solveig (Charlotte Bøving), Kolbeinn’s apparent girlfriend (the film is remarkably low on dialogue and exposition), guests laugh with blissful, Lynchian ignorance while the mare is left outside, its presence spiking the stallion’s hormones—and prompting a very noticeable erection.
These horses, and by extension, the world itself, have no regard for the folly of man, and Of Horses and Men, pristinely directed by Benedikt Erlingsson, asserts this notion with at least four interwoven, alternately startling vignettes. Another involves the alcoholic Vernhardur (Steinn Ármann Magnússon), who—illegally, we might expect—bridles a horse and literally rides it out to sea, chasing a Russian tugboat in hopes of acquiring vodka. He scores some hooch, all right, but a language barrier forbids him from knowing it’s actually straight alcohol, and when he and his steed return to shore, it isn’t long before he falls down dead from poisoning, landing at the hooves of an utterly impassive creature. Meanwhile, curmudgeonly Grimur (Kjartan Ragnarsson) is busy clipping barbed wire that’s blocking age-old horse paths, specifically wire attached to fences erected by a very perturbed Egill (Helgi Björnsson). Evading Egill as he gives chase on a tractor (one of Erlingsson’s many striking splashes of red), Grimur clips another wire only to have his horse buck, forcing the wire to snap back into his eyes and blind him. (In the grand tradition of the wine-dark humor of the film’s provenance, Grimur trots on nonetheless.)
Just as the screwing couple’s outdoor sex is juxtaposed against their efforts to control animals (their primal moans blur into the “Ho! Ho! Ho!“s they shout to herd horses), these calamities are cheekily matched with rushes of great beauty, like wide shots of Iceland’s singular gray-swathed horizons, and vistas of horses regally charging through shallow streams. Erlingsson’s insistence on starting each vignette with close-ups of horses’ eyes grows baldly repetitive, but it’s hardly enough to condemn a movie brimming with clever, memorable imagery.
And most interesting of all is how the filmmaker opts to depict his society. The film’s most sympathetic character is Juan (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada), a Spanish-speaking tourist enamored of Iceland’s flora and fauna, but unable to give his rented steed the instructed kick to get it moving. Juan’s reluctance leaves him and his horse caught in a fast-approaching blizzard, estranged from their group, and after he graciously dislodges a rock from his horse’s shoe, Juan eventually, horrifyingly guts the animal and spills its innards, climbing inside the carcass to survive the killer cold. Juan is just as helpless against nature as anyone else in this Nordic curio, but it’s telling that he, a non-local, is the person most compassionate toward these horses. On one hand, Of Horses and Men is surely a celebration of a land’s distinct creatures and the people who live among them, but on the other, it’s a culture’s biting auto-critique.